The Matrix: MEME 2.14

MEME 2.14

"We need a Martha Stewart of Cyberspace. People wonder why all this feels so intellectual and rational, and machinic. It is because designers have not gotten in there yet to invest this world with their humanity. My finger is pointing at them. It is your turn. The technologists are done. We have given you a foundation, and now it is up to you to build on that foundation. "

-- Mark Pesce, in MEME 2.14

Mark Pesce is known for his work creating VRML, or Virtual Reality Markup Language. In this issue of MEME, I spoke with Mark about his life, and what motivated him to co-create VRML. With the release of VRML 2.0, in August of 1996, VRML (pronounced "vurmel") is fast becoming the defacto standard for authoring dynamic, inteconnected 3-D worlds over the Internet. In this interview, Pesce discusses the origins of VRML and his hope that a "tactile," "sensual" version of cyberspace will bring a spiritual dimension to computing.

DB: VRML is a growing influence on the Internet, but before we talk about it, I was hoping you would retell how you first came to use computers, and what you found appealing about them.

MP: Back when computers were quite large I started using them. The first time I used a computer was when I was ten years old or so -- quite a long time ago in terms of computing. Someone's father managed a computer center and we would go in on the weekends and play Stark Trek games, and puzzles and things like that on the computers. That's when I discovered that I really liked them.

DB: What kind of computer was it? Was it a mainframe?

MP: It was a big Digital Equipment computer. A PDP of some sort.

DB: Where was this?

MP: It was in Rhode Island, where I grew up. I remember after that being intensely drawn to computers. I never questioned it when I was young. I just wanted to play with them. I felt they were the ultimate toy. As soon micro-computers came out, I got one. A TRS-80. A "trash eighty" as we called them.

DB: Were you in college by then?

MP: No, no. I was a sophomore or junior in high-school at that point. It was '78. My high-school was very foresighted and offered classes in programming. I took those. The junior college also did, and my parents and I were taking the same computer courses at the same time -- which was a lot of fun. I just really continued to enjoy it. Then I found myself at MIT.

DB: That's where you went to college?

MP: I haven't graduated. I was thrown out. If I had it all to do over again, I would definitely go to a liberal-arts school, rather than a school that is so focused on technology. It wasn't well rounded. On the other hand, the friends that I made there were very rounded people, and we all suffered from the same ennui that the institution is very capable of bringing on.

DN: What was that ennui?

MP: MIT is a dehumanizing place. It's not just the workload, it's the relationship of technos and ontos, of being and doing, in the sense that anything that gets in the way of doing is really disdained.

DB: So you were frustrated because MIT was so unartistic?

MP: I don't know that I can, in my 17 year-old frame of mind, recreate what I thought then. I know I was not enjoying it. It wasn't just the work -- it was pointless to me. Part of that was, "what would I do afterwards." Would I simply get married? Raise a family? Have a career? And then die? I took a good long look at that and it horrified the crap out of me. Part of that I know was coming to terms with my being queer, which was happening after I got to college. Part of it had to do with the institutionalization of life, and that I was not going to subject myself to that. So I went on strike, a personal strike, and said, "I don't want to buy into this crap. I want to take some interesting humanities courses. I want to learn other things." That first year at MIT I barely passed my sciences courses, but I won the fiction award. The second year I was there was my last year. The university said, "look you need to take a break." And I did. And I never came back. I felt guilty about it for five or six years, and my parents stopped bitching about it because now I am famous. They can't say I didn't make of something of myself.

DB: In the intervening decade or so, between MIT and the creation of VRML, what were you doing?

MP: I continued to work with computers. One of the things I realized right off as I started working was that communications was going to be the hot area in computing. It was going to be recession-proof. It was interesting to me. I get off on making computers communicate well. Given that, I focused in that area, and bounced around a couple of jobs until I finally found myself at a company called Shiva. When I joined Shiva, it was a small company with 15 people.

DB: When was this?

MP: 1988. They had a vision. The vision was: wherever there was a phone jack, there was a network connection. Now we think of that as prosaic. In 1988 that was very outré. People didn't think much about networking computers, let alone networking through the phone lines. I was really caught up in the vision. So for three-and-a-half years -- the longest I ever held a full-time engineering job -- I worked with them on that.

DB: Did you write code?

MP: Oh yes, absolutely. Part of what I did was interface design, primarily on the Macintosh. I made things easy to configure and use. I was taking abstract entities -- network devices -- and creating intuitive methodologies. 1988 was also the time when the bubble started forming around virtual reality. Scientific American had a cover with a data glove, and [VR Pioneer] Jaron Lanier was on tour across America showing things off. Those ideas started to filter down into my own head as I was thinking about how to make computers much easier to use. I spent a lot of time working on network management, which is taking this utterly abstract entity which is hard to get a handle on, and making it intuitive for people to manage, even if they do not have a college degree in network management. So, somewhere in here I started to see the convergence between what people were talking about in virtual reality and what I was doing.

DB: And what was that convergence?

MP: The convergence was visualization, or perceptualization. That if you could show people something tangibly, they would then have the necessary understanding and sensibility required to manage it. At this point I got caught up in Mondo 2000, issue number two, in which Jaron Lanier is giving a long interview about virtual reality, and he says very clearly, "Virtual reality is not the television of the future. It's the telephone." I read that line and all of a sudden everything clicked. Then I knew what I was going after, I knew what to do. I was going to build that telephone.

DB: Why build that telephone? What's the point?

MP: What's the point behind that telephone?

DB: Yes.

MP. Ahh. There's a lot of points behind that telephone. In the beginning, I just wanted to make it easier for people to manage networks. But as I started to explore the project, I understood that what I was doing was making information tactile. I was making it sensual and working on techniques to do that. The basic theorem behind virtual reality is that if you make things sensual, if you sensualize them, they make more sense to people. Think of it from that point of view, of putting human beings in the center of what is going on rather than making them peripheral. Most interfaces think of human beings as peripheral. This is the transition we are going in with design now with interfaces -- human beings are no longer peripheral, they are considered integral and central, and interfaces now conform to the human being and not the other way around.

DB: For instance, the "desktop" metaphor keeps people on the periphery.

MP: Exactly. Or a command line, where the computer is basically saying, "You will conform to my own dictates." We are really inverting that now, and saying, "The computer conforms to our dictates." That is the essence of what I have been working for since these ideas first popped in my head five or six years ago.

DB: A big leap took place then when the Internet appeared, and took its place as the defacto global computer network.

MP: Right. At Shiva we had been working on the Internet since I was there, so to us it always seemed like something we would work with. But when I went out five years ago and said, "I want to visualize the Internet," people would say, "What is the Internet? Why would you want to visualize that?" It was not intuitive to them what the power of this was. A lot of this has to do with the fact that people often can't understand things until it is presented to them in a sensual sensible way.

DB: Why did you leave Shiva?

MP: As I started to grasp the size of all this, I went to Shiva's founders and said, "Look, I want to start my own company to research these things," and they gave me their blessing, so I went my own way and moved to California, from Cambridge [Massachusetts]. I set up shop in San Francisco and tried to insinuate myself with the VR community out there.

DB: What the name of your company?

MP: It was called Ono Sendai. From Gibson's Neuromancer. We ended up doing a lot of research, and ended up blowing a lot of capital, and ended up without a company in the end.

DB: When did that happen?

MP: Ono Sendai was about 1991 to 1993. I think official bankruptcy happened in 1994.

DB: Why did it blow up?

MP: Oh, a lot of reasons. The market was immature. The people I was working with were immature. There were a lot of reasons, but they mostly had to do with the immaturity of the components we were working with. We were part of the pioneers who ended up with arrows in their backs.

DB: 1993 is a big year in the history of computers. How did the arrival of Mosaic affect you?

MP: I started seeing how what I wanted to do coincided with the Web. As soon as I figured out what the Web was, it was all over. I had been a fan of Xanadu [a hypertext system] and Ted Nelson [Xanadu's designer], waiting for it to ship. Well, the Web was good enough for everyone to start using it. So in October 1993 I downloaded the Web software to my workstation and became Web server number 330 on this very nascent Web. I thought, we have this very wonderful information space, but it is very easy to get lost. There's no "there there" because it is a hyperspace, and human beings don't work in a hyperspace. We are very tactile. Even in the way we think. We tend to spatialize everything. And in hyperspace there is no space to spatialize information. There's no way for you to organize where you are, or how you got there, or how you can get somewhere else. What I wanted to do was amend that with the work I had already done in visualizing the Internet, and co-opt the content that was already starting to appear on the Web. One of my biggest worries was that I would finish this, and then there would be no content for it. What good would that be? I thought very evily, "Well, if I co-opt the content on the Web, there will be content in there." This was the point of time when Tony Parisi moves to San Francisco, and I sit down with him and get him fired up.

DB: Who is Tony Parisi?

MP: Tony Parisi is the other gentleman, beside myself, credited with the creation of Virtual Reality Markup Language. He and I put together the work that was the first demonstrable 3-D interface to the Web. He and I knew what we wanted to do, and because of that we got the whole thing done in a week and a half. It was just the first pass at it, but it was there. When we got it done we both knew that it was going to be important, that people would be interested in this. We now faced a real break-point, which was to say, do we hold onto this tight and market it ourselves, or do we give it away? Do we follow in the footsteps of the Web? We decided that was the better idea.

DB: How come?

MP: We had a better chance for success and a standard if we could get the ball rolling, we would then be swept up in it too. Otherwise it would have been Tony and I against the rest of the Web. That did not strike us as being smart. So we mailed Tim Berners-Lee [designer of the original World Wide Web protocols] and got an invitation to present our work at the first Web conference which was happening in May 1994. I found myself in Geneva in a room with fifteen people, at a birds-of-a-feather meeting on virtual reality and the World Wide Web. I was the only person who had actually done virtual reality work on the Web. At that meeting a man named David Raggett coined the phrase "Virtual Reality Markup Language," or VRML. It stuck. I knew at that point that Tony and I had produced an instance of VRML. We came out of that conference with a mandate to produce something industrial strength. We knew the way to do that was open this to everyone on the net. With the help of Wired magazine we established a Web site and a mailing list.

DB: Why did Wired help you?

MP: The systems administrator at Wired wanted VRML to happen, and he talked to his bosses and they said sure go for it. It was Wired's idea to give back to the Net what they had been given. So we set up a couple of Web pages and established a mailing list and told a few newsgroups we were doing this thing, and if you were interested to come and join us. I figured fifty or a hundred people would.

DB: I actually joined that list back then.

MP: [laughs] Did you? Well, we had 2,000 people in two weeks join the VRML list. It was amazing. I had not expected that. We began in earnest a public discussion of how to do what we wanted to do. I set goals and end points. A community needs goals and a central vision to maintain coherence over time. We got lots of suggestions of what VRML 1.0 should look like, and because of this we moved from a prototype to a final version in five months. By mid-October we had VRML 1.0 and we introduced it to the world at the second Web conference. It was embraced because it was built from existing technologies people trusted, and it was built by existing consensus.

DB: So who owns VRML?

MP: No one.

DB: It's a public standard.

MP: It's like, "who owns TCP/IP?" No one.

DB: Well why did VRML 1.0 not catch on then?

MP: It was not interactive. In October 1994 the Web's interactivity was clicking and hyperlinks. Why didn't we do more than that? Well, we faced a problem. If I offered content that was interactive on a Macintosh and tried to deliver it to you on a PC, it was not going to work. Then Java arrived. As soon as Java reared its head in May of 1995 we immediately began negotiations with Sunsoft to find a way to marry VRML with Java. That lead to VRML 2.0.

DB: When was VRML 2.0 released?

MP: August 4, 1996.

DB: Is there a delay there? Are people embracing VRML 2.0?

MP: There are two or three Java-enabled browsers out there now, and lots of wonderful content being developed.

DB: So if people wanted to experience VRML they would need a Java-enabled browser and that's it?

MP: You would have to use Netscape and one of the VRML plug-ins.

DB: With these plug-ins do you feel people can really experience the vision you had? Or is it still not there?

MP: We are still on the way. I don't think I will be satisfied for another ten years. Are we at the 95 percentile? Yes. My own dream is to produce planetary visualizations, which I do. I produced something called Web Earth with VRML 1.0 earlier this year, which produces a real-time model of the planet as seen from space. It updates every hour. You can see the weather patterns moving. You can see the entire planet.

DB: You say you won't be satisfied for the next ten years, but it's so much the standard which needs development, it is the content.

MP: The standard is incredibly useful, but it is going to take people time to mine that usability. I'll give you two different analogies. When desktop publishing became the rage in 1985 it was three years before we saw really nice documents. For three years we saw of riot of fonts because people were not literate in the medium. We are not literate in 3-D yet. The only folks who are literate in 3-D are architects, and they tend hold that information very closely. Architecture is still very much a guild. So what we are going to see now is that a lot of that information about space, place and information is going to be a lot more diffuse. As that happens we will see our own capabilities at 3-D interfaces improve in a corresponding way.

DB: Behind VRML you have talked about a spiritual dimension. How does that motivate the vision?

MP: A lot of my work with planetary visualization has to do with my own feeling about the spiritual elements of the Gaian body -- of the planet. The planet itself contains a presence. Very often when I show Web Earth for the first time to people, they will tear up or they will cry -- which I had not intended. But there is something about the essential emotional nature of seeing the Earth that changes us, and it is speaking to spiritual part of us. My own feeling is that as we interact with any artifact, any device, we become bound to it. You cannot talk about the two different parts, you can only talk about the unity and the things that are produced from that unity. My own understanding is that if that unity has no place for spirituality or the sacred representation of the self, when you are a unity with it you are dehumanized. Because you cannot represent the full range of what you are. Conversely, if the environment has that place for your sacred being then you can express a more complete range of what you are. The sacred is that which grounds the world. The place for being in the world is the sacred place. Without place for being you cannot be in the world.

DB: This seems to speak to your experience at MIT when you were younger, and the dehumanization you experienced there.

MP: Yes. Although I did not think of it then in those terms.

DB: You've talked about something called the noosphere. What does that mean?

MP: I would talk about the noosphere in relation to the emergent phenomena which are happening around us, specifically the emergence of the World Wide Web as this instantaneous and ubiquitous event -- that it happened everywhere all at once. It transformed everything that it encountered, and given that, I look at that and I think there is some field from which these things are emerging. This is what is called the noosphere.

DB: What is the noosphere in this context? How would you define it?

MP: It's the layer collective or connective mind. Connective intelligence, collective intelligence, corrective intelligence -- there are aspects of all these that get displayed.

DB: How does this alter the nature of people to have this thing around?

MP: It has been altering people for 150 years, ever since the first telegraph wire. There are bits of you that you did not put there. It is so ubiquitous in our culture now that we can't not think about how much of us has been delivered through a medium. How much of what we think of as being true has been delivered through some form of mediation rather than direct experience. And that this line is starting to get very muddy. All of that mediation is coming through something that today we would call a noosphere. So it is giving us some ground, some commonalty, that we did not have before. The ego boundaries are starting to get significantly blurred by this. This Cartesian ego we were familiar with from the Renaissance is starting to fade away into the noospheres.

DB: That sounds like it has its downside. For instance the television forming truth for us. The idea that people's vision of what's real is what's on television.

MP: That's exactly what I'm saying.

DB: It has problems then.

MP: Oh absolutely. I don't think the noosphere is purely good or purely evil. It is what we make of it. If we shovel a lot of crap in the noosphere then we are going to fill ourselves up with a lot of crap.

DB: Presumably VRML doesn't fill it up with crap.

MP: It certainly could. This is one reason why my own work is trying to create good examples, profound examples, of what can be done with the medium. It's a medium, though. It has a range of affects that are positive and negative. To think it is going to be all one and not the other is to be either utopian or dystopian.

DB: What do you see moving forward in the next ten years?

MP: The noosphere will become much more sensible, it will be much more tangible for people. They will perceive of it as a very real place even though it is entirely made up of electrons. Because we will be sensualizing it and investing it with tangibility, the way we think about it will have a real concreteness. The Web does not have that yet. It will be much more emotional. This is another problem with the Web. Human communication tends to be very emotional. One of the beauties of the telephone is that the voice has this ability to carry emotional mediation. That's hard to do on the Web. The Web feels arid and intellectual right now. This has to do with the fact that the Web is entirely constrained by the eye, and the eye is very detached and intellectual.

DB: You need to bring in the other senses.

MP: As you bring in the other senses -- not just text -- but space and place, those have a sensuality and emotion that is missing in text or in a still image. We are going to start exploring the boundaries of our own emotional literacy. then the Internet will start to approach the capabilities of media in expressing our emotional natures. I think of singing and dance of being two of the most emotional media because in some ways they are not very mediated. They represent this total connection between your body and your emotional being, and your expressiveness. I think that is the direction we move into.

DB: And for you personally, as a designer, what do you think you will be working on?

MP: I am going to be working on producing effective examples of the interfaces for people -- widgets. We need a universe full of widgets right now. It sounds dull. It sounds boring, but we need the light switch. We need the water faucet. Those are the things we need, and until we have them we can't really unlock the potential of the medium. Interface is like a language, and every interface you have is like another word in that language. You build up a rich vocabulary. Right now we have very limited sentences and it is mostly baby talk.

DB: We should expect new words from you? Can you give us a foretaste of what those words will be?

MP: A lot of it will be in the context of Web Earth. Being able to guide people through very complex data sets in very intuitive ways. That's one part. Another part is the teaching I am doing. One of my main goals is to teach people how to master the tools for themselves and unlock their creativity. I will facilitate other people realizing their ideas.

DB: Did I overlook anything? Is there anything else you want to express?

MP: We've covered the basic ground. In terms of something I will be saying to designers over the next six months, something I will be harping on, is that we need a Martha Stewart of Cyberspace. People wonder why all this feels so intellectual and rational, and machinic. It is because designers have not gotten in there yet to invest this world with their humanity. My finger is pointing at them. It is your turn. The technologists are done. We have given you a foundation, and now it is up to you to build on that foundation. Because without that we will be dissatisfied. We will be forced into using interfaces that by their nature will dehumanize us.

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